Flavorwire Interview: Andrew Bujalski on ‘Computer Chess’ and the Legacy of Mumblecore

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Austin-based filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, whose 2004 directorial debut Funny Ha Ha is widely considered to be the first mumblecore film, is tired of talking about mumblecore. That’s possibly why his fourth film, Computer Chess, feels so different from his first three (which also include Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax). Taking place at a computer chess tournament in an anonymous hotel conference room in the early ’80s, Computer Chess is more akin to a Christopher Guest comedy than an indie movie about young Brooklynites in emotional distress. But Bujalski’s recognizable cinematic touches are there: shot on vintage video cameras with a surrealist aesthetic, Computer Chess, like Bujalski’s previous features, is at its heart a film about human interaction and connection. This week, I met with Bujalski to discuss his new film as well as the cultural impact of the mumblecore movement.

Flavorwire: What was the major inspiration behind Computer Chess? Was the convention based on a real event you had heard about?

Andrew Bujalski: Well, the first spark [was] that I wanted to work with these cameras. I’d been working with 16MM cameras for the last ten years and people kept asking, “Hey, why do you still shoot on film?” The contrarian streak in me made me think, “Well, if you fuckers want video, I’ll give you video.” Video doesn’t have to mean whatever is hot right now. And not to disparage those new cameras, but the reason I was shooting on 16MM is that I’m a big believer that the format matters and so does the texture of the image. I had seen some old Sony Portapack footage, particularly some that William Eggleston shot in the ‘70s, and I fell in love with the camera and thought it’d be great to do something with it. But I’ve never seen a narrative movie shot on these cameras. I don’t even know if one exists. After stumbling onto a minor mention of the existence of computer chess tournaments, it lodged in my head near this video idea. It’s hard for me to explain: it’s a common first question about the movie, and I don’t know. Most of the heavy lifting here was done by my subconscious.

This film is a departure from your earlier films: it’s very cerebral and not about young people in relationships, but it still deals with the issues of how people interact with one another. Was that deliberate on your part?

I knew we were doing all kinds of stuff that [was] dissimilar from the earlier films, but it wasn’t a calculated thing. It was a leap off the cliff, so in that sense it was supposed to be a departure not from my oeuvre but from my sanity. Again, that same contrarian streak — when Beeswax came out, the general consensus from the press was, “Here’s the mumblecore guy and here’s another mumblecore film from him.” It frustrated me at the time, because no one could see how it was different from other movies. Now everyone is in a hurry to say how different Computer Chess is, and I want to say, “Can’t you see how it’s so similar?”

That’s what I thought was so interesting about Computer Chess, though! I didn’t know much about it before I started watching it, so I expected it to be a lot like your other films. When you think about mumblecore, it’s an aesthetic that usually has a specific subject matter, yet this is a period piece and it’s much more surreal.

I don’t even know if that’s an aesthetic! When you think about grunge, for example: Pearl Jam and Nirvana don’t sound anything alike.

Sure, it’s become a catchall term to describe a group of filmmakers rather than define a cinematic aesthetic. Were you surprised at the reaction you and your cohort received after those first few so-called mumblecore films?

I was 24 when I made Funny Ha Ha. I was shocked at the response. I’m not a provocateur; it’s a very gentle movie, and it surprised me that it was capable of making people furious. I never anticipated that it would happen. I could anticipate people not caring, but not getting angry. But it seemed like the people who really hated it were people my age. They said, “You think you know my life, but that’s not my life. You got it wrong.”

It’s very clear that this is a movie, rather than a document of supposed realism. That’s what frustrates me about the found-footage trend, even with narrative features. The idea that it’s absolutely realistic really bugs me — it’s pretentious almost. Whereas with Computer Chess, you’re always aware that the camera is present and you’re watching a film.

There was certainly an imperative in the earlier films to be tasteful, and for better or worse the aesthetic design was that the camera and editing were never supposed to be on display. The movies were about the performances. With Computer Chess, there was no need to be tasteful. We could goof off and could pull off as many stunts as we wanted.

There’s also a broad humor that plays into that, too. The mockumentary style heightens it: here’s a bunch of nerds at a computer chess conference. It’s similar to a Christopher Guest movie in terms of the characters. Did your actors craft these characters on their own?

When you cast an actor, you’re putting your life in their hands, so that’s always true. A lot of the characters are tech guys. I’m not a tech guy; I’m the last person to tell you what tech guys are like. So I cast a lot of guys who were into that, and I could sit down with them and say, in my layman’s terms, what kind of programming the character would do, and they could take it and go way deeper with it and bring those characters to life.

Were most of the actors non-professional? Wiley Wiggins was the only guy I recognized, and I didn’t even realize it was him at first.

Well, we put a mustache on him. We even tried to get him a prosthetic nose! Wiley is an odd example; obviously, he’s had at least one iconic film role that everyone knows and loves. He’s a very good and committed actor, but he’s not a career actor. But he is, basically, a career tech guy. It wasn’t like I was casting my actor buddy and told him to go learn about technology. I was casting someone who was incredibly knowledgeable about technology who happened to have some great acting experience.

It seems like that could be a benefit of a low-budget film: you will hire actors who aren’t recognizable, and it makes the film a little more believable.

Oh, I’ve always felt that way. Even though I’ve seen 20 movies with Robert De Niro, if I went back to Mean Streets I’d still be blown away. Some of the best performances are by people who are cracking something open for the first time. Your relationship is purely with the character and you’re not thinking about what you read about them in the tabloids.

Do you consider an audience when you make a film? Does the expectation of who may go see it and respond to it affect your process?

Yes and no. That was a blessing with Funny Ha Ha — we’ll never have the perfect naïveté of not knowing who would see the film. I think it was a great thing to have, but I could survive without it. With Computer Chess, it’s a great and pleasant surprise that it’s been mostly well received. It may well be the most successful thing I ever do, which was not at all the plan. I went into this with the intention of possibly nailing the coffin on my career. I didn’t know if it would make any sense, if I could edit it into anything releasable, if anyone would see it. I didn’t mean to make something relevant: that was an accident.

The two of your earlier films that I know — Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation — seem to be ahead of their time in a way. Especially looking at the success of Lena Dunham and Girls: there’s a cultural obsession with the notion of being in your 20s and dealing with the uncertainty of that age.

The funny thing is that none of that is new. There were novels about that in the 18th century.

Absolutely! It speaks to our short cultural memory. As someone who is about to turn 30 and is so tired of thinking about my 20s, I wonder if the age of a person watching a film plays a part in their appreciation of it.

Someone just asked me this question the other day about Funny Ha Ha: “Were you setting out to capture the rhythms of 20-somethings?” Well, those were my rhythms. It wasn’t anthropology. It’s still a movie; I wrote it and it’s stylized, and it wasn’t ethnographic. It was interesting to read the reviews by “adults” who looked at it as a window to a generation they had to learn about.

In terms of mumblecore, do you think it was a movement that ended, that it was a specific artifact of a specific time?

I never thought it existed. I compared it earlier to grunge; I know what it means, but it doesn’t define any kind of music to me. It was more about a cultural moment rather an actual aesthetic. I also think the Sex Pistols don’t sound like The Clash, but they’re the titans of punk. I can appreciate the usefulness and convenience of assigning the word to some cultural something, and it’s crazy to me that this word has the currency it does. You can read it in the paper with no explanation required. It’s in the vernacular, and that’s amazing to me. I get what it’s referring to, but personally, as a guy who goes out and spends time and energy into making these movies, it doesn’t have anything to with my work. You can put it into any context you want, but that’s not how I’m building it. I don’t know how to make a mumblecore movie.

Was there a time you resented the term? Did you find it harmful?

Yeah. It made it very easy for people to dismiss my work. The major problem for me, and to anyone who is lumped into any movement, is that the commonalities that seemed to define mumblecore were the least interesting parts of the movies. The things I think made those movies good are the differences. The Puffy Chair and Nights and Weekends and both fantastic movies, but not because they’re “white people talking about their relationships.” If you’re going to say you don’t like movies about young white people talking about their relationships then… OK. But that’s not what those movies are about.